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All trigger, no warning: A new book brings Bengali queer literature to English

Professor Niladri R. Chatterjee talks about his latest book ‘Entering the Maze’, a translation of the queer writings of author Krishnagopal Mallick

The titular story in Entering the Maze, is about young boy’s advent into teenage, warts of puberty and all.
The titular story in Entering the Maze, is about young boy’s advent into teenage, warts of puberty and all. (Unsplash)

Entering the Maze is a translation of two short stories and a novella from the Bengali, by writer and editor Krishnagopal Mallick. The translator is Niladri R Chatterjee, a writer, editor, and Professor at the Department of English at Kalyani University in West Bengal.

Chatterjee first came across Mallick’s work from a friend, who lent him a collection of his Bengali writings. Intrigued by the frankness of his prose, Chatterjee decided to translate his work into English, wanting to add his writings into the pantheon of queer literature in India.

In the first story, The Difficult Path, the elderly protagonist acts as a guide for a young lost boy at a concert. In the second story, wryly titled Senior Citizen, another elderly character gropes a young man on a bus and is confronted by him in turn. And the final piece—a nostalgic coming-of-age novella that gives the collection its name—is about young boy’s advent into teenage, warts of puberty and all.

Mallick’s writing does not present the same concept of consent and trauma as we are used to. In his introduction, Chatterjee forewarns readers that there is a complete absence of any notion of consent in the book. This may be hard to deal with for some readers, for Mallick’s writings are all trigger and no warning.

The one emotion that Mallick doesn’t express is shame—his protagonists are openly curious about bodies, sex, lust, attraction, and exploring taboo desires. For Chatterjee, this uninhibitedness was the factor that drew him to Mallick’s writings.

But while Chatterjee considers Mallick’s writings to be exuberant in the main, satire seems to be a more prominent tone in this collection. The writings are not devoid of trauma, for fear of discovery dominates in the first two stories.

Entering the Maze: Queer Fiction of Krishnagopal Mallick, translated by Niladri R. Chatterjee, published by Niyogi Books, 176 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>350
Entering the Maze: Queer Fiction of Krishnagopal Mallick, translated by Niladri R. Chatterjee, published by Niyogi Books, 176 pages, 350

In an interview with Mint Lounge, Chatterjee spoke about the challenges of translating Mallick’s prose, Bengali queer literature, and the Facebook group he established called New Gender Studies. Edited excerpts.

What did it feel like to read Krishnagopal Mallick’s writing for the first time?

It was the directness of Krishnagopal that first struck me. I have read a little bit of Bengali queer literature and most of it is circumlocution and euphemism. Secondly, there is a certain heteronormative expectation that we have from queer literature—that it has to be about suffering, as though it is the duty of the queer person to suffer. I thought it was extraordinary that Krishnagopal was not interested in the sadness at all. There is a kind of wide-eyed innocence on every page, a sense of ‘Oh wow, this is happening to me.’

Also, it’s always a thrill to hear or read about the parts of Kolkata that you yourself are very familiar with!

Tell us a little bit about the experience of translation itself.

I think I wanted to preserve Krishnagopal’s tone of voice more than anything else because I knew that there were certain things that simply could not be translated. Byuhaprabesh is set in a 1940s household, with appliances and household objects—a whole way of life, really—that has completely disappeared. I had to be able to communicate a certain sense of a prosperous North Kolkata Bengali household in that time, rather than do a one-to-one match with the original text.

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The biggest challenge was that in the novel there are so many different kinds of Bengali. There is colloquial Bengali, formal high Bengali, Bengali that is spoken by somebody who’s not from Bengal. I did not have that variety of English. So, I tried to create some kind of variation in the English that I used.

For example, a section in which the precocious teenaged Krishnagopal is writing a novel, the passages are in Sadhu Bangla—formal high Bengali. There, I tried to use arcane and bombastic words to convey how this well-read young boy is showing off his knowledge.

You’ve described Mallick’s prose as ‘effervescent’, but he presents some challenging themes in his writing, such as violence and sexuality – did these features make it easier or more difficult to translate him?

It cut both ways. Reading Krishnagopal in the original is an absolute delight because of his effervescence. But when you get to the dirty work of translating, then it becomes a challenge to retain that effervescence. I tried to do that by keeping the language simple and the sentences short, to create a tempo of light and airy prose.

We’re used to queerness being a part of the private realm. What was it like to read and write about queerness being presented in these very public spaces, especially in the decades that it's set in?

Anybody who has done even the most cursory research on the way in which social life and sexual life is organised in the city will invariably know that every single big city has got cruising spots. Kolkata is no exception. And remember, although the novel is set in the 1940s, the short stories are set in the 1990s, which is not that far (back in time).

I think that no public space is purely public, and it never was purely public—people perform their private desires there, too—such as when a couple get on the metro and establish casual, flirtatious and intimate physical contact with each other, like holding hands.

Do you think Mallick creates this interplay within the public and the private with the intent to shock readers out of complacency – or was it just an autobiographical honesty?

The funny thing is that I don’t think Krishnagopal ever intended to shock. That is the extraordinary thing about him—he does not set out to be sensational. He’s simply someone who says—this is the life that I led, and oh my god, what a wonderful life that was.

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Do you think the Bengali literary world is open to discussions about queerness? Are there other writers in Bengali whose work with queer literature you admire?

I think it is becoming increasingly easy to talk about it. I have furnished a list of Bengali queer literature in my introduction. At the moment Krishnagopal definitely is my favourite, until I come across someone else as radiant in their writing as he is—but I’m biased!

The number of queer works of literature by Indian authors is increasing, but most are still published in English. Do you think we’re well-placed to see queer literature in Indian languages soon? Are there any such writers you admire?

I think that translators need to translate more regional queer literature—such as the wonderful translation of Cobalt Blue by Jerry Pinto, Ruth Vanita and her fantastic translations of Hindi short stories by Pandey Bechan Sharma, and also M. Asaduddin’s translation of Lihaaf by Ismat Chughtai.

How open is academia in Bengal specifically, and in India in general, to frank discussions about queerness? Have you encountered opposition to your gender studies courses at any point?

Well, I will have to stick my neck out here! I will say that Bengal is perhaps a little bit more progressive. When I am speaking at webinars, organised by universities or colleges that are based outside Bengal, very often I am asked questions that speak of a basic ignorance about queer literature, even by faculty members. I had no opposition to offering the course at my university—absolutely none. And of course, I’ve got the huge support of my students, who continue to sign up for it in droves.

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You run a Facebook group called New Gender Studies. Could you tell us a little bit about it?

The group was set up as a response to the need for the students to have some kind of a forum on social media where they can discuss queer literature, culture, and issues. But I did not expect to see it become the enormous phenomenon that it has become. During the pandemic, membership increased and it continues to be a thriving community.

Rush Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based writer.

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